At the beginning of March, the machinery was on the Poniente beach in La Línea de la Concepción: its objective was to collect all the seaweed that the sea had thrown onto the sand to leave it clean for use during the beach season. The calculations when the work was more or less finished were quite striking: in two months they had to remove 500 tons of invasive algae.
This beach in Cádiz is just one example: year after year and month after month, the municipalities of the coast face the algae that remain stranded in the sandbanks, known as arribazones. Algae are part of the marine flora, which when they are thrown onto the sand and are simply a dead organism —and even more so when it comes to invasive species— become a problem. They are a residue, one that, yes, could be given a new life.
That is what AlgaEcopack is looking for, which wants to turn them into an alternative to plastic and use them to create containers for fruits and vegetables. The seaweed that is now litter on the beaches of the province of Cádiz could become the material with which the products of its farmers are exported to the rest of the world.
Behind the idea are Víctor Manuel Pérez and Sofía Tristancho, entrepreneurs from Futuralga, a spin-off company born at the University of Cádiz (UCA). In fact, research professors from that university —and with funding from various Andalusian organizations— are working to achieve this conversion of algae into an equivalent to plastic and that the idea of these entrepreneurs becomes something tangible.
Aware of the amount of plastic in the sea
It was the ‘hobbies’ and the training of the creators of this idea that led them in this direction. “We take the algae because they come from Marine Sciences,” explains Luis López, professor-doctor at the University of Cádiz and the main researcher who is in charge of this project from the UCA.
“They chose them because they know them. Also because they are divers and have seen a lot of plastic in the sea », she assures. Being aware that it is necessary to reduce the use of plastics —and thus prevent them from ending up dirtying the oceans, where millions of tons of this material already accumulate— helped them think of new uses for those algae they saw on the beaches.
Likewise, recalls López, the algae right now is waste, one that ends up in the landfill and has a cost for the coastal municipalities – its elimination costs between 50 and 80 euros per ton. But they could be more than just junk. “We collect them, clean them – we must remove sand or plastic – and dehydrate them,” he explains. Then, through the process that they have developed, they turn them into a material that can be used to create containers for fruit or vegetables.
For now, the idea is just that, a project that is being worked on; but this does not mean that it is something of science fiction. In fact, the researchers are ahead of their own work forecasts. “We have reached the first milestone sooner than expected,” explains López. “We are very happy about it,” she says. They have already confirmed that creating the material and with it the packaging is possible. “We have created the tray, it holds the fruit and has consistency,” says the researcher.
In resistance testing phase
Now, they have to do the tests of resistance and compliance with the regulations that food packaging implies. Their next target date is April 2024, when the packaging should be done and go from prototype to production-ready.
Likewise, they also want to do tests on composting times and the like to see what happens to their plastic made from algae. Because that is one of the great benefits of going to collect seaweed on the beach: being an organic material, it has potential benefits that plastic does not have, as well as potential waste management that this material could never offer. It could potentially be thrown into the compost bin and thus start a new life, fulfilling the objectives of the circular economy. “We want it to have a negative carbon footprint,” says Luis López.
It should not be forgotten that in the past, algae were already used in coastal areas as fertilizer. They were thrown directly on the cultivation ground, which had, yes, a certain problem. “It was stopped being used, because it burned the land a lot,” explains López. Of course, a container that goes through a composting process would be something else.
Those responsible for the project also work thinking about the potential that this will have for the agricultural sector of the area. “We are focusing the product on agriculture,” says López, who recalls that the sector is already looking for more sustainable packaging and “it is thus anticipating what the market is asking for.”
Only if the fruit and vegetable producers of the Cooperativa Nuestra Señores de las Virtudes —with which they collaborate and which is one of the Cadiz producers— make the leap to seaweed containers, 1.5 million of them would already be withdrawn from circulation. plastic containers per year.
From AlgaEcopack they also see another point with potential, which is to use something that is a problem for another of the great pillars of the region’s economy —tourism— to do something sustainable.
And, beyond making these algae containers withstand all the tests that they will be subjected to in this phase of the research, the challenge is that their cost be affordable, that this alternative be viable from an economic point of view. Because, as López recalls, plastic is very cheap, even though, in reality, it is not cheap for the planet.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.